A Menu for All Seasons

A few weeks ago my mother-in-law, Fran, called to report that she had just completed the switch from winter to summer clothes, dragging the former down two flights of stairs to the cedar closet in her basement. Spring came late this year. I must be getting old, she huffed, sighing heavily into the phone.

It was the first week in April– a couple of weeks past the vernal equinox the drop-dead time for wearing cashmere according to Fran. I was in my office when she called, working on an article about what some might charitably call my obsession with artisan bread.  I was baking a couple of loaves a day just for the sheer pleasure of smelling them bake in my warm kitchen on a chilly afternoon. I had a pot of ribollita simmering on the stove (had to find a use for all that bread) and a bottle of burgundy uncorked and breathing on the kitchen table. And, for the record, I was wearing my favorite black cashmere turtleneck. Nothing could have been further from my mind that afternoon than spring clothes or the impending arrival of crocuses in my front garden.

I’m not a curmudgeon.  Really, I’m not. In my defense, in Pittsburgh we’d had an unusually cold winter. What little of Spring we experienced up to that point had been cold and bone-chillingly damp. The kind of weather that makes me crave soups and stews, chicken and dumplings, pot pies and baked pastas

But it was Spring, damn it! Fiddlehead ferns, fava beans and slender green asparagus had made their way to the produce aisle.  I tried to get in the mood. I uncovered the gas grill and cleaned it, vowing that on the first nice day I’d grill some vegetables and a piece of shad. But when that day finally arrived, the shad season was long past.   Uninspired, I turned my nose up at the imported spring produce offered in our local supermarket, and opted to grill a Taleggio and prosciutto pizza instead.  Hearty winter fare.

People who live in Pittsburgh often joke that we are a two-season town if not Winter and Summer, then Steeler Season and off-season.  As April gave way to May, and the weather showed no sign of changing, I yielded to my cravings and made coq au vin and beef barley soup.  In the supermarket I admired the woman husking her genetically engineered corn, hopeful in her kelly green capris, her sockless feet shod in open-toed sandals. I followed her cart through the produce aisle, watching as she optimistically filled a plastic bag with hot-house tomatoes and a bunch of basil.

The point, I suppose, is that everyone operates according to his or her own rules. Like not wearing white before Memorial Day, or switching your clothes in preparation for the spring equinox to some extent arbitrary markers that govern our behavior and dictate our taste. For me, though, it is, and always will be, the intersection of food and weather.  And this past weekend, although we are a full month away from the summer solstice, it was hot, humid, and felt like mid July.  I was finally able to flip that mental pantry switch. Our inaugural spring menu, an homage to warmer climes:

Olives marinated with orange zest

Marcona almonds and Manchego cheese

Grilled Fish Tacos

(Grilled halibut rubbed with smoked paprika, cumin, chilies, olive oil and lime)

Fresh corn tortillas from Reya’s in the Strip

Salsa Verde (anchovies, basil, capers, garlic and parsley)

Black Beans and Brown Rice

Grilled Chili-rubbed Corn and Questo Fresco Skewers

Avocado and Endive Salad

Pineapple and basil sorbet